Sermon: Lent 4, Year A
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You can see the change already in Church. The fifth Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide: the ikons and crosses are shrouded, the banners put away. There is a greater sense of stillness, and a portent of dangerous things to come, a portent of something important.
Ezekiel shows one of these portents: the dry bones that rise from the desolate valley are symbolic primarily of the nation of Israel, exiled in 597 BC to Babylonia: crushed, defeated and dismembered. The Exile was the devastation of the nation: Jerusalem sacked, the holy of holies desecrated and the people scattered.
Ezekiel is ordered to prophesy and through the power of God they are resurrected. The people of Israel cannot come together again by their own power, but only through prophecy and the will of God.
In a similar vein, Lazarus is raised by prophecy – for Jesus says to Martha “Your brother will rise again” and by the will of God the Son, who calls to him. Flesh once again comes together and Lazarus comes out of the tomb.
The passion of Christ is also the subject of many, many prophecies, and it is by the will of the Father that the Son is raised.
Michael Schmaus, an American theologian, raises an interesting theological question: one of whether Christ was raised from the dead (the testimony of Matthew 28:6, Acts 2:32 and 1 Corinthians 15:13-15) or whether he has risen (Mark 16:6-9, Luke 24:34,46, another part of Acts 26:23 and the letter to the Romans 1:4 & 6:5); whether Our Lord was an active or passive participant in his resurrection: did the Father raise the dead body, or did the power of Christ who raised others, raise himself?
We need to ask ‘What does this say about our understanding of Christ, of his Father and their relationship as parts of the Trinity?’
Schmaus suggests this paradox can be reconciled by saying that Christ was raised by the Father insofar as he was a man, and that he has risen by his own power insofar as he is God. For it is only God who has such power, and he is manifest in both the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
The raising of Lazarus is a prophecy in itself, for it speaks of not only the resurrection of Christ himself, but of our resurrection, our new life in Christ, our deliverance from sin. However, Lazarus’ resurrection was a temporary one – he was raised to die once more as an old man. Our resurrection however, like that of Christ’s is an everlasting one, of flesh so real that our own patron Saint, Saint Thomas could put his hand inside the wound in his side, but so not of this usual world that the risen Lord could enter locked rooms.
Last week I went on a course for vicars like myself who are in their first parish. It was quite hard work but hugely informative and rewarding. One of the many things we encountered was some study on the cycle of the day: that of course the Jewish day runs from dusk on one day to dusk on the next: ‘it was evening and morning: the first day’.
Every day is an experience of darkness into light. This is why the Easter vigil can legitimately be held as we are holding it this year on the Saturday evening, for Saturday evening is easter day! So many times in both the Old and the New Testaments, God works on people through their dreams (think of Joseph, Moses, Samuel or Daniel), preparing their work in the night to be ready for the action of the day.
Lazarus, similarly had to go through darkness: the darkness of the tomb, the darkness of death, the darkness of loss and mourning for Mary and Martha, before Christ brought him back into the light. His preparation was in the dark, his action was his physical witness to the power of God.
There are times when we are required to go through that darkness: a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, dramatic change in our working or praying lives. It is often at that time when it may feel that God is so far from us, and we are sealed inside a tomb of our own despair. We may have been as faithful and devoted as Lazarus, or as sinful and unworthy as the next person. It is then that Christ calls out to us. It is then that God pulls us from the death of sin and into his marvellous light.
We should therefore be comforted when we enter into those dark times that there is a resurrection promise on the other side, a promise that makes dry bones dance, the dead rise and the sunset into a new dawn.